FEATURE | Posted Jan. 16, 2014

Remain vigilant against the flu

Activity can last through spring

woman entering building
Vaccination is the single most effective flu-prevention measure. You can also help protect yourself by cleaning your hands often to beat the germs that spread from door handles and other public places.

By Tan Nguyen, M.D.

Despite the recent warm spell and un-winterlike lack of rain, it’s important to remain vigilant about influenza prevention.

Dr. Nguyen is a UC Davis primary care physician who practices at
UC Davis Medical Group's
 office in Sacramento's Natomas area.

While the infectious disease typically gets lots of media attention in the fall thanks to the introduction of seasonal vaccines, California generally sees an increase in cases in late December or early January, and it often peaks in February or March.

This year it appears to be peaking early, the state’s public health officer Dr. Ron Chapman said in a Jan. 17 news advisory. To help keep from falling victim, be sure to pay attention to prevention behaviors such as handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes. And if you haven’t been already, consider getting vaccinated.

“Flu activity continues to increase statewide, including reports of hospitalizations, severe disease and the number of deaths,” Chapman said. “We are clearly in the midst of what appears to be an earlier peaking, severe flu season, and I encourage everyone who has not yet gotten a flu vaccination to do so. The influenza vaccine remains the most effective way to protect yourself from the flu.” 

Vaccination is typically particularly important for those persons at higher risk of severe influenza such as pregnant women, obese people and people with certain underlying medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes. The flu virus that appears to be predominant so far this flu season, a strain of H1N1, may have the potential to affect non-elderly people more than other flu viruses typically do. The state health officer considers this year's vaccine an excellent match against this year's influenza strains.

Why you should care

High-risk groups

Some typical high-risk groups for flu-related complications:

  • Children younger than 5 years, but especially younger than 2
  • Adults 65 and older
  • Pregnant women
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives

People with existing medical conditions, such as:

  • Diabetes and other endocrine disorders
  • Heart disease such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease
  • Chronic lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or cystic fibrosis
  • Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions
  • Asthma
  • Kidney disorders

See CDC's complete list

The flu, or influenza, is a viral illness that causes fevers, chills, sweats, headache and muscle aches. It can also lead to fatigue, a painful cough, sore throat, and sinus and chest congestion.

While influenza symptoms can last from several days to a couple of weeks, most people start gradually getting better after two or three days. However, in some high-risk groups of people (see sidebar), severe symptoms can develop.

Getting the flu can mean:

  • Feeling miserable
  • Lost productivity in terms of days off from work or school
  • Putting loved ones at risk from getting your flu
  • Possible serious complications, including pneumonia, bronchitis or a worsening of existing heart disease or diabetes. Flu-related illnesses have been listed as the eighth-leading cause of death in America, based on 2007 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Prevention

Recommendations for preventing the flu are easy to follow — and can make all the difference in staying healthy now and throughout the year:

  • Get a flu vaccination. According to the CDC, this is the single best way to prevent the flu. Annual vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of having serious flu-related complications, CDC officials say, or people who live with or care for high-risk individuals.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands often, and especially after coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. If you're ill, stay home.
  • Cover your cough. Use a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It can prevent the spread of germs. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper arm or elbow.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread this way, which is why hand washing is so important.
  • Maintain good health. Being healthy improves your immunity and helps fight the flu.

The vaccine

The flu vaccine usually comes in two forms:

  • The shot. This is an inactivated vaccine, containing dead virus and is safe for people over 6 months of age, including pregnant women. Side effects can include soreness, redness and swelling of the injection site, low-grade fever and muscle aches.
  • The nasal spray. This is a live virus that has altered to spark immunity to the flu, without causing illness. This is for healthy people from 2 to 49 years old, excluding pregnant women. Side effects can include runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough.

It's good to ask your doctor which variant is best for you.

Some people who should NOT get a flu shot, such as:

  • Anyone who had a severe reaction to a flu vaccination in the past.
  • Those who developed Guillian-Barré syndrome after previously receiving a vaccine.
  • Children younger than 6 months.
  • Anyone with moderate or severe illness with a fever (talk with your doctor).
  • For people who have egg allergies there is a possible option, FluBlok. Please contact your physician to see if you qualify for this injection.

See the complete list from the CDC